I have written these words in various guises, in paragraphs both fat and slim, and discarded every one, thinking I needed the last note, the final touch, to wrap this story together and bring it to completion.They buried Ken Mitchell on a clear winter's day, with fire trucks and an honor guard. I was not there, as life is a series of choices—some major, some minor—and the sum total of mine find me here, in eastern Alabama, seven hours away from everything that I once called 'home.' I've been waiting for the words to come to me, for me to find the perfect phrase to explain what a man like him was to a town like the one I spent my childhood in, but the truth is that you either understand automatically and implicitly, or you never will.
A week ago, my sister called; those of you who have only known me from reading this site may be surprised to learn that, indeed, I have a sister. I do, and yes, our similarity in appearance is only matched by our dissimilarity in temperament and interests. We have not spoken in quite some time, and her phone call was a surprise, to say the least.
Knowing that her husband is a member of the same volunteer fire department that Ken was the chief of, I asked about the fire. I had recognized the address as the one of a house only a few thousand yards from the house I grew up in. The article made mentions that to outsiders would mean nothing, but to readers familiar with the area implied a large fire.
"It wasn't a big fire," she said. A one-department fire, the kind that we were accustomed to hearing calls for with reasonable regularity when we lived with my father, who had also been part of the fire department. "But when Central called 'firefighter down,' they came from as far away as Bauxite and Poyen."
In the five years and change I have been writing for this site, I have struggled to find a way to explain to many of you about the town in which I was raised. I am well aware that I grew up in a rural way of life that is being erased from the rapidly suburbanizing American landscape faster than it can be written, and that many of you consider the concept of a 'neighbor' as the couple in the next apartment down from you that you've met once or twice. There, it is different; when the call of 'firefighter down' came over the radio, men in two different counties dropped everything that they were doing. They came in fire trucks and personal vehicles, carrying radio and gear and breaking speed limits.
They did this without knowing who it was.
This is the world I left: a tiny world, magnified and blown past all sense of proportion by the twin lenses of family and community. This is a world in which unheard-of allowances are made in the case of family: the brother you couldn't speak to in life is the brother whose casket you break down in hysterical tears on after his unexpected passing.
(Been there, seen the hysterics, have Jeff as a witness.)
As I grow older, I have begun to understand that this is a zero-sum world. Nobody enters, and nobody really leaves. Some of us wander off into 'the world,' to places where your neighbors are passing acquaintances and your fragile friendships are born through commonality of interest or workplace, but we don't get far. Every holiday, every happening, every event: like siren song, once heard, unable to be unheard; like tide, as subtly insistent as it is undeniable.
Today, after having a light lunch with Jeff's family, we pointed our car west and headed toward Mary and Wesley's. After passing around hugs to those I knew, I headed downstairs to change out of my heavy sweater into the spare t-shirt I had left at Mary and Wesley's for just such an occasion. Once back upstairs, I was corraled by Simon, who led me off to the master bedroom for a game of 'kitties.' (A certain domesticat must outwit and outsmart a very wily seven-year-old SimonCat in order to catch him. Tickling is usually involved.)
I asked him questions about his Thanksgiving, and asked for another hug. He asked why, and I replied, "Because it's Thanksgiving today, and I'm very far away from my family today."
He looked at me with this patient, "I am seven but you are a moron" look, rolled his eyes, and said, "But you ARE family, Amykitty."
Maybe so, kiddo. Maybe so.